When Tom Bosworth was a teenager, he was picked on mercilessly. He was taunted for being skinny (which he is, and always was) and being gay (which he is, but wasn’t so clear to him back then). On one occasion, a group of bullies smashed his head through a window. Another time, a kid told him his dad was going to set Bosworth on fire. So, you’ll have to forgive him if he’s not overly fussed if you don’t think that his sport — race walking — is really a sport.
“It’s never bothered me very much,” says Bosworth, eating lunch — pasta salad and a flapjack — overlooking the track at Leeds Beckett University where he trains. The facilities, which include swish, 80m rooftop running lanes and an environmental chamber that can replicate extremes of heat and altitude, have become a hub for British endurance athletes; the Brownlee brothers, Olympic champion triathlete Alistair and former World Champion triathlete Jonny, will be down this afternoon. Bosworth goes on, laying down a semi-serious challenge to armchair snarks: “I’m like, ‘Oh, just come and join me for one session and tell me it’s not a sport. Tell me if you could do it. Good one. You can run five-minute kilometres? I walk four-minute kilometres. Good luck with that.’”
No one on Earth has ever walked a mile as fast as Bosworth, who is 31 and has a neat, red undercut and fine, elfin features. Considering there are just under 8bn people on the planet, and almost all of us have walked a mile at some point, he deserves at least some props for that. He broke the world record at the London Stadium in July 2017, taking almost six seconds off a time that dated back to 1990 to finish in five minutes 31.08 seconds. The video, easily found on YouTube, is a mesmerising watch. You quickly forget the exaggerated, comic hip waggle of the competitors, or the fact that it is surely only a matter of time before Will Ferrell makes a movie about elite race walking. Bosworth appears to float; only his perma-grimace betrays the fact that it is an eye-popping effort and a supreme athletic feat.
The mile is not an event in Olympic race walking. In Japan this summer, races will be contested over 20km and 50km. Bosworth will line up in the shorter distance in Sapporo on 6 August and he’s a locked-in medal shot. At the Rio de Janeiro games five years ago, he led the field for most of the race before fading to finish a surprising sixth in a new British record. He wishes now he’d had more self-belief that day in Brazil.
“I was like, ‘Where are the Chinese? They’ll come past in a minute,’” Bosworth recalls. “All the way even to 16, 17km, I was like, ‘Oh, I might still finish 15th.’ And I was first with 4km to go! I wish my head was a bit different and I’d gone, ‘I’m good enough to be up here.’ But I never thought that I would be really good at this.”
Doubt tapped Bosworth on the shoulder again the following year, during the 20km event at the 2017 World Championships in London. He had gone to Rio an unknown; race walking was so under the radar that the BBC only showed the events on its Red Button service, taking the generic Olympic-issue commentary. But London, a year on, was different. Bosworth had just obliterated the mile record. He was a legitimate contender. Steve Cram and Paula Radcliffe were behind the mics now; the race was broadcast on BBC2. Even the Queen was watching; or at least, the walkers struck out past Buckingham Palace, so she could have been.
Bosworth, in the main, could not be said to lack confidence. But it leached out of him on that day. “I walked onto the start line, and I remember going, ‘Flippin’ heck!’… the noise when my name was introduced,” he says. “I wanted to be anywhere else bar on that start line and I never felt like that. I was like, ‘Shit, this is intense.’”
Like Rio, Bosworth went out fast, leading the field. But the pace he set was quicker than he had ever walked before, and his technique started to unravel. The rules of the sport are arcane but really come down to two absolutes: a race walker’s knees have to stay straight through most of the leg swing and one foot must always remain in contact with the ground. A contravention of these regulations leads to a red card; red cards from three different judges will result in a walker being disqualified. The chief judge can remove the walker from the course then and there.
This is what happened to Bosworth just under halfway through the World Championships race in London. When he realised, he crumpled to the pavement on The Mall like he’d been picked off by a sniper and bawled his eyes out.
“People still talk about it today,” says Bosworth. “When they hear what I do, they say, ‘Oh, you weren’t that guy, were you?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, that was me.’”
Bosworth laughs wryly; disqualifications are intrinsic to race walking. And he wasn’t Bernardo Segura, a Mexican who crossed the line first in the 20km race at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney; Segura was on the phone to the president of Mexico when his third red card was confirmed. But disqualification in London started a dramatic spiral in Bosworth’s life. Events from the past hit him in waves. The bullying at school. Coming out publicly in 2015, the first British track and field athlete to do so. Overachieving in Rio. Flunking in London. The doors — “brick walls really” — he had to bang on to get anyone to take race walking seriously or receive any meaningful financial support.
In late 2018, Bosworth tried to hang himself at his home. Not long afterwards, following a row with his fiancé Harry Dineley, he found himself standing on a bridge overlooking the M62. A passer-by pulled over and asked, “What on earth are you doing, mate?” It was enough to stop Bosworth in his tracks, fortunately.
What was he doing?
“It was never meant to get that good,” Bosworth reflects, shaking his head. “So, it was never meant to hurt that much.”
Britain invented competitive pedestrianism — of course we did — and, historically, has been the powerhouse of the sport. But if Bosworth were to place in the top three this summer, it would be our first medal in the discipline for 57 years. Those came in Tokyo, too, at the 1964 Games: a silver in the 50km for Paul Nihill, who died last December aged 81 after falling ill with coronavirus; Ken Matthews, an electrician from Sutton Coldfield in the Midlands who worked at a power station and had a jaunty hip sashay, went one step higher on the podium and won gold in the 20km.
These men were the last of a golden generation and the link to an age when race walking was very much not a joke. Indeed, go back 200 years and there was no bigger sport than pedestrianism. The original superstar was Robert Barclay Allardice, known to all as Captain Barclay. He was unusual in the early days of competitive walking in that he was actually well-heeled: a Cambridge-educated Scot, his father was an MP and one of his cousins founded Barclays Bank. He made his name as a teenager, walking six miles in an hour in 1794, but he became one of the most famous men in Britain in the summer of 1809 when he was challenged to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 successive hours — that is, one mile in each and every hour for just under six weeks.
It was not fame or glory that spurred on Barclay and his ilk. Behind all the walking feats of the early 19th century — many of which are totally batshit, the stuff you’d have to be sadistic or deeply bored to come up with — was a wager. If Barclay completed the challenge, he would be paid 1,000 guineas, which was about what an average worker of the day would earn in 20 years. But the serious money was to be made in side bets: according to contemporary reports in The Times, quoted in Peter Radford’s book The Celebrated Captain Barclay, £100,000 (the equivalent of £40m in today’s money) was speculated by onlookers — among them the Prince of Wales — on whether Barclay would make it.
He did, though it nearly destroyed him. By day 12, Barclay, who wore a silk cravat, top hat, lambswool tights and thick-soled shoes, was already complaining of severe pain in his shoulders and neck. On day 26, he fell asleep standing up and his servant, William Cross, could only rouse him by striking him repeatedly with a walking stick. Barclay was both the best and worst thing to happen to pedestrianism. His feats created a new industry: pubs would stage walking matches to attract drinkers; brothels were set up as a side attraction. For the first time, sports pages appeared in newspapers to report on the action. But the problem for the men who came after Barclay was that whatever cruel, ridiculous goals they accomplished — 1,100 miles in 1,100 hours (1816), or 1,500 miles in 1,000 successive hours (1877) right up to Bosworth and the present day — these feats never captured the public imagination or received the remuneration like the Captain’s had.
One exception, across the Atlantic, was a showman called Edward Payson Weston, a door-to-door book salesman from New England. His rivalry with Dan O’Leary, an Irish immigrant from Chicago, is described as “the Frazier and Ali of their age” by Matthew Algeo in his book Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport. Both men came to England to take on our finest walkers, in what were unofficial world championships. It was the birth of professionalism, even sponsorship in sport: O’Leary was the spokesman for a brand of salt. It also produced the first doping scandal, after Weston was found to be chewing coca leaves during a race in London in 1876. It remains an issue, though EPO (the hormone erythropoietin) is the stimulant of choice these days; more than 25 top Russian walkers have been banned for violations in recent times, including three Olympic champions.
Ultimately, though, pedestrianism came to be looked down upon as a lower-class, debauched, Georgian-era pastime. Upstanding Victorian young men, often fresh from Oxford and Cambridge, formed athletics clubs instead. The safety bicycle was invented in 1885 and its races made walking contests look, well, pedestrian.
Bosworth knows the bones of the history of pedestrianism but he’s not especially interested. “I wouldn’t say I’m into it, but I’m well aware of it,” he says. “Again, you don’t want to be defensive, but when people say, ‘Oh, walking is not a sport,’ I’m like, walking was one of the biggest sports this country and Europe has ever seen. Thousands of people turned out to watch it, to compete in it, to bet on it.
“And it just shows, people enjoy the drama and jeopardy of marathons and the longer, more ultra stuff. It’s harsh to say, but they want to see the athletes collapse at the end. And the 50km is just disgusting: they’re seven-minute mile-ing for the best part of four hours, but walking. There’s been some spectacular” — Bosworth pauses — “accidents, I’ll say, in 50km races where people have just melted to the ground or got back up and finished these races. It’s just formidable.”
No one, least of all Bosworth, seriously expects race walking to monopolise the sports pages again. The Tokyo Olympics will see the debut of skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, all of which look dramatic and seem made for a 30-second social-media pop (two traits to which you could never accuse race walking of pandering). In December, it was announced that the 50km race walk would be cut from the Paris 2024 Olympics. It may still be reborn as a 35km event in major championships, but either way, Bosworth thinks it is a mistake: race walking has lost its USP as the longest Olympics athletics event.
Maybe, instead of scaling it back, they should increase the race walk to 100km, I suggest. “Some people might want to watch that,” replies Bosworth dubiously.
Bosworth is convinced that the Covid-19 pandemic, antithetically, will give race walking a boost; he’s certainly had lots of people telling him how they discovered the joys of stretching their legs in lockdown. But it’s hard to imagine what kind of kid would commit to walking long, gruelling distances as a sport. It feels like one of the most iconoclastic, even heretical, activities you could pursue.
It was luck, more than a conscious choice, which led Bosworth to race walking. He first tried it aged 11 when his mum took him and his sister Emily to an athletics club in Tonbridge that happened to have a race-walking coach. This was not uncommon in Kent at the time, apparently. He was not especially good at first or for many years: “bang average” as Bosworth puts it. (It all changed, aged 18, when he stopped growing and — “overnight” — went from the middle of the pack in junior races to miles out in front.) But he liked the athletics club and that everything he was bullied about — his skinniness, his sexuality — was never once mentioned there.
“It was outside of school, I could just be myself and whether they knew or not, it wasn’t spoken about,” says Bosworth. “It wasn’t bitched about. And I think that’s what is lovely about track and field. You’ve got everyone from sprinters to shot-putters to marathon runners to walkers to long jumpers. You’ve got such a diverse community that no one really blinks an eyelid at anyone who’s a little bit different. Because everyone’s different.”
If anyone can, and should, bring attention to race walking it is Bosworth. He is smart, self-aware, charismatic, both media-savvy and more opinionated than active sports people ever are. He also has a flair for the dramatic that makes him always worth watching: his highs are high and his lows subterranean.
“When he’s up, he’s really up and when he’s down, he’s really down,” says his coach Andi Drake, who has worked with Bosworth since he brought him to Leeds Beckett as an undergraduate more than a decade ago. “And obviously, he’s struggled with that. But Tom’s great strength is his ability to raise his game on race day and perform better than his training numbers. That’s something that really marks him out as outstanding. I’ve worked with lots of other athletes who would smash him out of sight in training sessions. Then, on race day, Tom’s like, ‘boom!’”
Off the track, Bosworth has decided to pursue a policy of radical honesty. In 2015, now a regular in the Team GB squad and a British record-holder over 5,000m and 10,000m, he decided that the world could handle knowing he was gay. He thought he might write a blog, but his agent suggested doing an interview and lined up a slot on Victoria Derbyshire’s TV show. “It snowballed into being breaking news,” says Bosworth. “On the news channel the night before, it was: ‘Britain’s first track and field athlete’s going to come out tomorrow’. And I was like, ‘Is that me? Are they literally talking about me, because shit!’”
Any regrets? “No,” he replies. “But what I learned immediately was in sport, there’s nobody who is not straight. There’s nobody representing the LGBT community in sport, because they feel like it’s a weakness. Or that it matters to someone and it just doesn’t.
“And I don’t know whether it’s coincidence,” he goes on, “but I did that interview at the end of 2015, and from 2016 through to today, I have three world records, six British records, I’m a Commonwealth silver medallist, European, world and Olympic finalist. Things went well! Maybe it was that one or two per cent, or 10 per cent, focus: I had nothing to hide and could focus on being a really good athlete.”
It has not, of course, been quite that straightforward. Bosworth’s tailspin became clear at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which were held on Australia’s Gold Coast eight months after he’d been disqualified in London. It is usual for Bosworth to have a month off at the end of the season to relax, maybe have a second glass of wine. But after the 2017 season, and the collapse on The Mall, one month turned to two, a glass of wine turned into a bottle a night. He lost interest in training. Dineley, his fiancé, who is a special-needs teacher in a primary school, was trying to engage him in planning their wedding and buying a house. Bosworth fobbed him off.
Australia was an escape, at least at first. “There was one athlete who I was away with and I messaged her, ‘Can you just come to my room quick?’” says Bosworth. “And I just cried to her for two hours. We went to dinner and I could barely put food in my mouth. I was just choking up because I just didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be at home. But I also knew when I went home I’d have to face a fiancé who I didn’t know whether wanted to still be with me, support me. And I’d have to face me.”
Somehow, Bosworth won silver in the 20km at the Commonwealth Games, in a strong field. But back home, his relationship was falling apart and his form was suffering. “I was just so disappointed in myself and letting everyone down,” he says. “And if I wasn’t winning races or at the front of races, what was I? That dawned on me, so I’d have a drink to ignore that. I was neglecting my training, my fiancé, my family, my life. ‘Normal life,’ I was like, ‘that’s boring because that didn’t go well for me.’ And it led to a point where I was like, ‘What’s the point?’ It had gone from such a high in 2016 to by the end of 2018, I ended up trying to take my own life.”
Bosworth has found his way back. After that night on the motorway bridge, Dineley made Bosworth call UK Athletics and tell them what was happening. They mobilised immediately and put him in touch with a psychiatrist. He started a conversation that continues to this day. “I look back at it now, it feels like it was a different human,” says Bosworth. “A different brain inside me.”
It’s hard not to root for Bosworth, pounding out mile after punishing mile in a sport that most people either don’t care about or make fun of. On the morning we meet, he’s doing what’s called a “tempo” session: six bursts of 500m, two of 1km and a final 2km, all at race speed. His coach Drake calls it, “the glue between sprinting, the eyeballs-out stuff, and endurance work”. Bosworth looks formidable: when he’s not in motion, his body appears delicate, almost translucent, but this belies the fact that he walks up to 130km a week, through the snow on Yorkshire roads and in heat chambers that replicate high summer in Japan.
But mainly Bosworth seems to be enjoying himself. He puts this down to mending his relationship with Dineley, going for walks with their black Labrador Jess, being comfortable at home on the outskirts of Liverpool, even quite liking gardening, and finally being injury-free after a long period with lower-back niggles.
“Rio de Janeiro feels like a lifetime ago,” he says. “I’m a totally different person, but I understand what is important. And whether I win a medal in Tokyo or not, it’s not important. It doesn’t define anything.”
I tell him I don’t know whether I totally believe him. He’s in his early-thirties, peak age for a race walker. Tokyo 2021 could be his moment, an achievement he’s been working towards for two decades. Race walking could once again, albeit only for an hour or two in the jingoistic lunacy of the Olympics, be the most important and thrilling sport in the world to British people. “And how exciting that could be,” says Bosworth. “Being at the front of races in a British vest makes me so proud. Because I never thought I would win a British race. Your local race — I never thought I’d win that.”
Bosworth will certainly be competing in Japan and, he hopes, in Paris at the 2024 Olympics. After that, he’ll see. “Whatever happens,” he says, “I will have achieved more than I ever dreamed of, and I can go away from it really happy with what I’ve done and where I’m leaving it. Definitely, I’ll still be involved in athletics, but I’ll give my poor fiancé a break — and give my legs a break as well.”
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